Kindred by Octavia Butler

imageI raised my head and discovered that I could not focus on him. ‘Something is wrong with me’ I gasped.
I heard him move toward me, saw a blur of grey pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming …

Dana is a twenty-six year old writer living in California in 1976 with her husband Kevin, also a writer. They’ve finally managed to buy their first house, but as they’re unpacking, Dana starts to feel queasy. Before she knows it, she’s been transported back in time to save the life of a drowning child. However, far from being grateful, the child’s parents are instantly suspicious, and his father aims a gun at her, intending to shoot. Straight away the dizziness returns, and she finds herself back in her house — no time has passed.

The child is Rufus, and Dana establishes that he is her own ancestor, whom she is called back in time to him to save whenever his life is in danger. But Rufus is the son of a slave-owner in Maryland, and Dana is a black woman. This makes navigating the world of a slave plantation potentially deadly for Dana. However, whenever her own life is in danger, she is transported back to California in her own time. This makes the scenes of her travelling back and forth especially dramatic.

We see snapshots of Rufus as a young child, through adolescence, and then adulthood as he becomes the owner of the plantation after his father. In the early part of the book, Rufus and Dana have an easy rapport — she is his saviour, after all — and she dares to hope that this will mean he grows up with more compassion than his father. However, as he becomes an adult, their relationship becomes more and more difficult — Dana inhabits a dubious middle ground between the whites and the slaves, meaning she doesn’t fit easily into either category, and Rufus struggles to accept a black woman who doesn’t fit his expectations of how a slave ought to behave.

Seeing the life of a slave plantation through Dana’s modern-day eyes somehow makes the brutality rather more real than if you were reading about it directly. We see her resist the horrors at first, trying to teach enslaved children to read, or helping people to run away. But slowly, the impossibility of her situation gets to her, so that she concentrates only on her own survival because it’s all she has the strength for. “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery”, she says.

Kindred works as a time travel story because it gives readers the chance to examine an awful part of history through a modern day viewpoint. We might like to think we would be able to resist in a society so obviously wrong to us — but Dana shows us that things aren’t as simple as that. Kindred isn’t always an easy read, but it is well worth the effort.

Kindred is available on Amazon.

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